North Dakota tenure bill fails in state senate

, Spencer Irvine, 15 Comments

A “tenure reform” bill in North Dakota, officially known as House Bill 1446, failed to make it through the North Dakota Senate last week. The bill passed in the North Dakota House of Representatives by a 66-27 vote in February, but ultimately failed in the Senate by a 23-21 vote.

On Monday of this week, a motion to reconsider House Bill 1446 in the North Dakota Senate failed by a vote of 24-23.

In the words of bill sponsor Rep. Mike Lefor, the bill was a “tenure with responsibilities” act. The bill had been under consideration in the upper chamber for several weeks before it was brought to a vote.

Eric Grabowsky, associate professor of communication at Dickinson State University, stated in an email exchange with Accuracy in Academia, “A diverse coalition of people from across North Dakota proactively opposed HB 1446 with various arguments. Communicating here as a citizen, not for DSU or our university system, in my view, HB 1446 was primarily about getting rid of tenured faculty who articulate discomforting truths regarding academic, financial, and managerial issues across our institutions of higher education in the state.”

Several college professors and North Dakota’s State Board of Higher Education (SBHE) opposed the bill, with the SBHE proposing a joint study with North Dakota lawmakers to review the much-discussed post-tenure review process for tenured faculty.

But why was there a controversy over proposed reforms to tenure?

One of the main concerns was that it would suppress academic free speech.

The bill, if it passed both chambers in the North Dakota legislature, would have created a program at Dickinson State University and Bismarck State College to evaluate tenured faculty members by the following standards:

  • Follow policies and procedures
  • Effectively teach and advise students
  • Help with the retention and success of students

Additionally, the bill proposed that university presidents at Dickinson State University and Bismarck State College would have the power to review the performance of tenured faculty members at any time and the authority to not renew contracts if the professors do not meet university standards. A later revision to the bill allowed for an appeal of the presidents’ decision to the commissioner of the SBHE, while protecting university presidents and administrators from lawsuits or complaints if they recommend non-renewal.

Interestingly enough, the Senate Education Committee issued a unanimous “Do Pass” recommendation after tweaking the bill to remove the word “pilot” from the program. In the end, even that recommendation did not help push the bill past the finish line.

Conservatives have criticized and pushed for tenure reform in recent years as concerns grew about politicized professors. Yet House Bill 1446’s failure shows that achieving tenure reform, even in conservative states like North Dakota, is easier said than done.